Despite its culturally conservative character and populace of white, blue-collar voters, West Virginia has proven a tough nut to crack for Republicans outside of presidential races.
Democratic stances on culture and coal proved insurmountable for Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama, but most of West Virginia’s own Democrats are adept at distancing themselves from the national party when needed.
Yes, in 2010, Republican representative David McKinley beat Democrat Mike Oliverio by a hair in the state’s 1st congressional district. But the Senate race proved deeply disappointing to the GOP, as John Raese, who as late as the first week of October appeared to be on track to be the first Republican senator elected in this state since 1956, lost to former governor Joe Manchin by eleven percentage points.
Manchin’s election required him to step down as governor, and state-senate president Earl Ray Tomblin became acting governor. (Tomblin retains his title as senate president but is not collecting his legislative salary or presiding over the chamber.)
Tomblin’s biography seems like a litany of clichés for powerful state lawmakers with shady ties in rural states. His mother, Freda Tomblin, owned a pair of lucrative dog tracks and his father, Earl Tomblin, was a sheriff twice convicted of election fraud and bribery. The more recent case, from 1989, featured the elder Tomblin paying a sheriff candidate $10,000 for a salaried position as a part-time investigator for the sheriff’s office that required little work.
Tomblin’s family owned Southern Amusement Co., a vending-machine outfit that distributed “gray” video-poker machines before the state legalized video lottery in 2001. The term “gray” meant that while they were purportedly not meant to be used for gambling, just for amusement, it was an open secret that many venue owners paid players. After becoming senate president in 1994, Earl Ray Tomblin left his position with the company, and his family sold the business the following year — to “Joe C. Ferrell, a former state delegate from Logan County who pleaded guilty to racketeering and tax charges in federal court last month.”
Around the time they sold Southern Amusement, the Tomblins expanded the dog-racing venture. The state legislature started setting aside money for dog racing in 1993 as an incentive for dog owners to breed greyhounds; the fund was created when Tomblin was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Since 1993, Tomblin Kennels; Tomblin’s mother, Freda; his brother, Carl Tomblin; and other members of the Tomblin family have received at least $4,194,014 in breeders’-fund bonus payments. One of Tomblin’s Democratic rivals, state treasurer John Perdue, tried to make the dog tracks an issue in the primary but got limited traction.
The West Virginia state legislature is deemed a part-time job, and legislators are currently paid only $20,000 in annual salary. But the perks can add up. Tomblin’s travel expenses over the past eleven years amount to $268,232.88. In 1998, he spent $74,000 to redecorate his office, and the Charleston Daily Mail detailed some of the expenses: “about $800 to re-letter doors at the Capitol with Tomblin’s name instead of Manchin’s, about $2,700 for pens and pencils with Tomblin’s name on them,more than $7,000 for letterhead stationery and envelopes, $469.93 for 8-by-10-inch photos of Tomblin.”
While accumulating enormous political power in the state, Tomblin has received exceptionally little public scrutiny. He was first elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1974, was elected to the state senate in 1980, and has been senate president since 1995. He began this year’s six-way Democratic gubernatorial primary a heavy favorite and won by 15 percentage points.
As late as November 2010, on the eve of his debut as governor, local press called him “something of an enigma.” The local public radio station declared, “when he became acting governor earlier this month, the appointment left many West Virginians asking, ‘Who?’”
Tomblin’s Republican rival, Bill Maloney, could not be a starker contrast. For starters, he has never served in any government job before. He founded North American Drillers in 1984, a company that started by drilling 24-inch support shafts for mines and expanded until it was capable of handling jobs as large as 18-foot-diameter shafts. Maloney sold his share of the company in 2006. During a family vacation in Cape May, N.J., last year, he heard details about the plight of the trapped Chilean miners; the Chilean government expected them to be rescued on a four-month timeline, and Maloney felt compelled to devise a plan that could work more quickly.
“I had known all along that I would end up in Chile, working to rescue those miners,” Maloney later recalled. “We arrived at the mine site in Chile on September 4, and timely planning and good fortune enabled us to begin drilling with DTH technology on September 5. Center Rock had fabricated the drilling equipment required for Plan B in days instead of the weeks usually required due to the specialized parts that are made per individual project requirements. . . . While the drillers lost and wore out numerous drill bits, they were still able to reach the underground mine workshop at 8:05 a.m. on October 9.” Maloney describes his role in the Chilean-miner rescue in detail here.
One Republican watching the race closely from Washington offers a healthy serving of caution alongside his optimism: “Outside of presidential politics, West Virginia is very much still a Democratic state. They have a two-to-one registration advantage, just elected a U.S. senator in a wave election year in 2010, control both state legislative chambers, etc. Having said that, the pressure is really on the Democrats to win this one. It’s already much closer than they ever anticipated, and it’d certainly sting to lose the governor’s office that Manchin gave up.”
If nothing else, Maloney has demonstrated striking momentum. A poll released by the Democratic Governors Association on August 25 showed Tomblin leading Maloney 47 percent to 33 percent. But by September 7, a Public Policy Polling survey showed a much narrower gap: 46 percent to 40 percent.
In the interim, the Republican Governors Association launched their first ad, hitting Tomblin for his tax hikes, trips to vacation spots, and quadrupling his own pay. The group’s newest ad points out that Tomblin is hitting Maloney for owning a vacation home in Georgia even though Tomblin himself owns one in South Carolina; and that Tomblin is criticizing Maloney for his business’s moving out of state — years after Maloney sold it — while Tomblin’s family’s businesses have collected millions from taxpayers.
“Earl Ray Tomblin’s lead has rapidly shrunk because West Virginians have learned that Tomblin has put an anchor on West Virginia’s economy while providing himself a taxpayer-financed lift over the course of his 36-year political career,” says Mike Schrimpf, spokesman for the RGA.
In addition to help from the RGA, a Republican National Committee source says that the RNC is working with the West Virginia GOP to fund the volunteer recruitment effort to ensure the state party has the “boots on the ground” necessary to launch a strong voter-contact program and turnout effort.
“Momentum is in Maloney’s camp and he knows how to come from behind,” says another Republican watching the race from Washington. “Remember he was down by almost 30 points in the primary and ended up winning by double digits.”
Finally, there is the factor of President Obama. The PPP survey last week indicated that West Virginia is second to last in its approval rating of the president (he is less popular only in Wyoming). In addition to the economy, West Virginia has been greatly affected by the Obama EPA’s unpopular coal policies. This race is entirely winnable.
Tomblin doesn’t have many direct ties to Obama, and the president has largely ignored the state, not stopping there at all in 2008 after the state’s primary and not visiting it as president until his attendance at an April 2010 memorial service for 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. He returned to attend a memorial service for Sen. Robert Byrd in July 2010 and hasn’t come back to the state since.
However, Maloney is finding ways to tie his opponent to Obama on issues. He has emphasized his desire to see West Virginia join the lawsuit seeking a repeal of Obamacare, which he calls “government run amok.” Tomblin says he opposes the law’s individual mandate but refused to join the lawsuit. Tomblin’s refusal to challenge Obamacare won him the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, which had opposed him in the primary.
Maloney also argues that like Obama’s, Tomblin’s record on job creation is awful. After President Obama unveiled his jobs plan before a joint session of Congress, Maloney said:
The American Jobs Act is all about saving two jobs: Obama’s and Tomblin’s. In a time of economic uncertainty, Obama wants our state to pay for more of his same, failed ideas. Similar to how Obama has allowed the country to fall in international rankings, Earl Ray has allowed West Virginia to fall to 49th in per capita income, 49th in median income, and 50th in labor-force participation. Obama wants us to pay for his $450 billion plan just like Tomblin wants us to pay for his 36 years of looking out for himself. Earl Ray Tomblin is obviously with Barack Obama, and we cannot borrow ourselves out of this recession. . . . Earl Ray needs to denounce Obama’s job plan. Fifty-nine thousand manufacturing jobs have left the state since Earl Ray took office. Unlike Earl Ray, I will actively campaign against Barack Obama. It’s time for honest leadership to get West Virginia back to work.
While Maloney remains an underdog, he appears to be surging. A defeat of Tomblin might rank alongside Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts or Bob Turner’s recent win in New York’s ninth congressional district — as a sign that Obama’s stances and record have severely damaged the Democratic party’s image and reputation, even in its most secure political strongholds. A Maloney win would also declare that the era of business as usual in West Virginia’s state government has finally come to an end.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.